"The secret of good writing is to strip every sentence
to its cleanest components."
- William Zinsser
Archived Feature Article #1 (June 12, 1997)
Top 10 Tips for Writing Better Business Letters
by Derek K. Miller - © Copyright 1997
Straight to the List
BUSINESS WRITING has only two goals: to make people
understand you, and to get them to take some action.
Your readers take the proper action only when they know not just what you say,
but what you want. Do you want them to:
- buy your product or service?
- confirm a decision?
- simply like you and think you're good to do business with?
All those things -- buying, confirming, even liking and thinking -- are
For your reader to understand what you want (and then do it), he or she must
first understand precisely what you mean in your writing. If he or she has to
guess, there's a good chance the guess will be wrong.
People who read your letters, e-mails, faxes, reports, and memos have no
opportunity to interpret your body language or tone of voice, as they would in
a conversation. So although you should write much as you speak, you should
think of the times when you speak at your best -- when your words, sentences,
and paragraphs are more precise than your typical, everyday speech.
Even when it's structured and precise, good writing helps your reader see you
as a real person, and treats him or her as one too. Many business writers are
tempted to hide behind officious, complex language, using it both to avoid
saying what they mean and because so many others use it. They shouldn't, and
you don't have to either.
To write effectively, to say what you mean, and to make sure your readers
understand you, keep these ten rules in mind:
1. Write Concisely
Some editors estimate that a third of the words in a typical letter are
wasted. At every stage of writing your letter, look at it and decide what to
remove -- there will always be something. Remember that you want your reader
to understand you and take action. Anything that does not help him or her do
that is unnecessary. Avoid repeating anything, other than for specific
emphasis. Remove needless words from every sentence, needless sentences from
every paragraph, and needless paragraphs entirely.
2. Be Complete
Don't take conciseness too far. You should write not just what must be said,
but also what should be said to achieve your goal. Your letter should not read
like a telegram, but should tell your reader everything he or she needs to
know, and then prod for action. Make sure that you include enough background
for your reader to get what you mean, and that you come across as tactful and
polite, not terse and unfeeling.
3. Use Nouns and Verbs
If you think of writing as driving a car, nouns and verbs are the wheels and
engine, while adjectives and adverbs are the body and trim. No matter how
fancy the paint and details, without power and grip your car goes nowhere.
Adjectives and adverbs can enhance sturdy nouns and verbs, but they can't
rescue weak ones. Instead of "I definitely believe that the performance will
be a very successful one," write "I know the performance will succeed." The
second sentence is both stronger and shorter.
4. Write Actively
Good writers use the active voice whenever they can. In active sentences,
people do things -- they act and interact. The active voice is vigorous and
brief, showing who acts and how. In passive sentences, things are done --
people are acted upon or, worse, disappear entirely. In most contexts, the
passive voice is vague and evasive, making your reader unsure who is doing
So instead of "The report will be sent to you" and "The source of your problem
has been determined" (passive), write "I will send you the report" and "Our
technical team has found what caused your problem" (active). Remove "there
is," "it appears," "are done," and similar phrases by rebuilding passive
sentences as active ones.
5. Be Specific
Most people use specific language when they talk casually: they tell stories
with details, colors, and smells. Write the same way. Use words to paint
pictures in your reader's mind, not to ask him or her to dissect abstract
concepts. If you have numbers, use them. Don't discuss ideas without examples.
Avoid abbreviations not everyone knows. Everybody understands words that
apply to everyday life, so use everyday words and your reader will understand
6. Write Interesting Sentences
Vary the length of your sentences to avoid lulling your reader to sleep. Make
some short and sharp. Draw others out by linking two or three together: clip
with commas, stitch with semicolons; even staple with dashes -- if you like.
Don't make all your sentences the same.
7. Write to Your Readers, Not Down to Them
Most people understand far more words than they use, either in writing or
If you read any general how-to book, business letter, newspaper, or even these
writing guidelines, you will find each written at roughly the same level of
language. None treats its readers like children, but none is likely to use
the word "turpitude" either. Even if you are writing to tell your readers
something they know nothing about, think of them as intelligent but
uninformed, not dumb.
Avoid using "we" if you don't have to -- use it if you are really talking about
a group opinion, position, or action (such as a company policy or a decision
voted on at a meeting), but don't use it to replace "I" with something more
pompous. Readers like to see that you are a person, not a vague corporate "we"
or an impersonal "the writer." Your reader isn't stupid and doesn't like being
talked down to.
8. Use a Positive Tone
Use negatives such as "don't," "won't," and "not" only to deny, not to evade
or be indecisive. Instead of "We can't decide until tomorrow," write "We
should decide tomorrow," or, better yet, "We will decide tomorrow." Even many
negative statements have single words that work better than negative
statements: "disagreeable" instead of "not nice," "late" instead of "not on
time," "wrong" instead of "non-optimal," "rarely" instead of "not very
often," and so on.
9. Be Correct
Good writing is correct in two ways: in technique and in facts. Reference
books, such as style guides and dictionaries, will help you write with proper
spelling, punctuation, grammar, and formatting. The facts, however, are yours
alone. Letters serve as records of what you say, often spending years in filing
cabinets for later reference, so your facts must be correct.
If you have relevant information, present it. If you are uncertain, say so. If
you merely suspect something, make the suspicion clear so your reader does not
think you know more than you do. Check your letter over before you send it,
to save the awkwardness of correcting a mistake after your reader sees it.
10. Be Clear
Good business writing is all about being clear. A letter is not a poem, a
mystery story, or a morality play. It should not have subtle allegorical
overtones requiring careful study, or different shades of meaning. In short,
it should not be open to interpretation.
Every word should mean one thing, each sentence should say one thing, and
together they should create a tool for achieving your goal. If your reader
understands you, then does what you intend, then your writing -- whether a
letter, e-mail, memo, fax, or report -- succeeds.
Top of Page |
Top of List |
Back to Main Page
Page BBEdited on 20-Jul-97